Elias Canetti - World Literature

World Literature

Elias Canetti


BORN: 1905, Russe, Bulgaria

DIED: 1994, Zurich


GENRE: Novels, plays


Auto-da-fe (1935-1936)

Crowds and Power (1960)

The Tongue Set Free: Remembrances of a European Childhood (1977)



In 1981, Bulgarian-born author Elias Canetti received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his body of work that crossed many disciplines and contained insights and analyses of crowd dynamics and obsessive behaviors. His best- known books are Auto-da-fe (1935-1936) and Crowds and Power (1960).


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Eastern European Roots. Elias Jacques Canetti was born in Russe, Bulgaria, on July 25, 1905, the oldest of the three sons of Sephardic merchant Jacques Canetti and his wife, Mathilde, nee Arditti. The Canettis and the Ardittis were descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Many of these Jews had settled in countries in eastern Europe. While the Jewish population in Bulgaria was small relative to other eastern European countries, Jews had a special status there with much self-administration led by a chief rabbi. Mathilde Canetti, the most influential person in her son’s childhood and adolescence, used her enthusiasm for literature, notably dramas and novels, as a medium for Elias’s education and inspired him to become an author and intellectual.

At home, Canetti’s family spoke Ladino, the language of the Sephardim in the Balkan states and around the Mediterranean. Ladino is derived from medieval Spanish and contains elements of Hebrew and non-Jewish languages. In addition, Canetti was exposed to Bulgarian, Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Romanian, and Russian. His parents spoke German with one another as their intimate language and as a code when they did not want their children to understand what they were saying. The German language thus assumed a special fascination for the young Canetti, and he later adopted the language for his intellectual and literary pursuits.

Literature at Heart of British Education. When Canetti was six years old, his father escaped the oppressive situation of working in a family business in a small eastern European town by joining his brother-in-law’s business in Manchester, England, then still a center of industry as it had been since the late eighteenth-century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Mathilde Canetti welcomed the move. She was eager to remove her children from the influence of her Orthodox in-laws, and she liked England because of its democratic tradition. Young Elias learned English without difficulty and was able to start school.

In Manchester, his father introduced him to literature and the life of the imagination, discussing what the boy read, including The Arabian Nights Grimm’s fairy tales, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719-1722), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), tales from William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615), the works of Dante, and Friedrich von Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (1804). He later said that he was grateful to his father for never telling him that fairy tales were untrue.

Moved to Continent after Father’s Death In October 1912, Jacques Canetti died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Around the same time, the Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 began, posing an increasing threat to the families in Bulgaria. The wars were fought in eastern Europe over who would control the balance of power in the area as the Ottoman Empire reached its final decline. Unable to tolerate life with her husband’s brothers, Mathilde Canetti moved the family to Vienna in May 1913. Convinced that Elias was destined to become a prominent author, his mother encouraged him in his intellectual aspirations.

In 1916, the family moved again to Zurich, Switzerland, to avoid the ravages of World War I. Caused by increased tensions in the Balkans, entangling alliances, and the final catalyst of the assassination of the Austro- Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand, the so-called Great War enveloped nearly the whole of Europe in the mid- to late 1910s and saw massive loss of life. Despite the horrors of the conflict, the Swiss capital was a safe haven for Canetti during his formative years. At the age of fourteen, he completed his first literary work, a historical tragedy titled ‘‘Junius Brutus.’’

Much to Canetti’s dismay, in 1921, Mathilde Canetti moved to Frankfurt with her sons. Frankfurt introduced Canetti to the harsh postwar reality in the defeated Germany as the country was forced to pay harsh reparations as well as lose territory and admit guilt for starting the war. The economic terms of peace had a disastrous effect on the German economy. Canetti was shocked by the effects of inflation when he saw an old woman die of hunger in the street. In 1922, another event, a mass demonstration against the murder of the Jewish politician and industrialist Walter Rathenau by German racists because of his heritage, revealed to Canetti the power of a crowd.

Chemistry Abandoned in Favor of Literature. In 1924, Canetti enrolled at the University of Vienna as a student of chemistry to satisfy his mother’s wish that he establish himself in a lucrative profession. His actual interest being literature, he immediately came under the influence of Karl Kraus, Vienna’s great satirist and polemicist, editor and to a large extent sole author of the famous journal the Torch. At his first Kraus lecture, Canetti met his future wife, Venetiana (Veza) Taubner-Calderon.

In 1928, frustrated by his studies and troubled by the July 1927 riots in Vienna over the dismissal of a court case against a right-wing party member accused of killing two socialists in an earlier riot, Canetti went to Berlin with his friend Ibby Gordon, who introduced him to members of the literary and artistic avant-garde. In 1929, Canetti completed his chemistry doctorate in Vienna, but he never worked as a chemist. That same year, he began writing Auto-da-fe. Two years before Auto-da-fe was published, in February 1934, Canetti married Taubner-Calderon against his mother’s wishes. His wife was an author in her own right. She had published a social-critical serial novel, The Yellow Street (1934), as well as short stories.

Wrote in Exile. Canetti and his wife were only able to remain in Vienna for a few years because of the threat of the Nazis. In the years after World War I, Germany’s economic recovery had lagged. When Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich took power in the early 1930s with promises of a better Germany, the country soon became prosperous again. His plan included rebuilding Germany’s military. Hitler used the army to secure his total power, and by the mid-1930s he was in control of the country. As Hitler began enacting his plan to take control of more territory in Europe, he also enacted in 1935 the Nuremberg Laws, which suspended the civil liberties of Jews.

Nazi Germany took control of Austria in 1938, and the Canettis left Vienna that November, fortunate to have been able to procure the necessary documents. They first went to Paris and from there to England, where they eventually took a modest apartment in the London suburb of Hampstead. Great Britain was a haven for exiles from Europe for much of World War II as one of the few countries not allied with or controlled by Nazi Germany.

Focus on Nonfiction. In his London exile in the 1940s, Canetti worked on his major work of nonfiction, Crowds and Power (1960). The impetus for this ambitious study can be traced back to July 15, 1927, when Canetti observed the dynamics governing the crowd setting fire to the Palace of Justice during the Vienna riots.

To counterbalance the concentration required by his monumental project on crowds and power, Canetti took up writing his Aufzeichnungen (‘‘notebooks’’) in the 1940s. Canetti’s aphorisms and diaristic entries include incisive observations and insights on a broad range of topics, including different cultural myths, languages, wars and revolutions, Jewish history and experience, crowds and power, and individual authors and events. Eventually, the Aufzeichnungen covered the years from 1942 to 1992 and were published in several volumes.

Nobel Prize Winner. After the death of his first wife in 1963 and remarriage to art restorer Hera Buschor in 1971, Canetti had acquired an apartment in Zurich and had begun living alternately in Hampstead and Zurich. He continued to write, primarily nonfiction. In 1977, he published his autobiography, The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood. Winning the Nobel Prize in 1981 made Canetti financially independent for the first time in his life. Though he still lived modestly, primarily in Zurich, he was in demand as an author and lecturer and published two books at the end of his life: The Secret Heart of the Clock: Notes, Aphorisms, Fragments, 1973-1985 and The Agony of Flies (1992), a collection of sketches, notes, and aphorisms. Canetti died in Zurich on August 14, 1994.



Canetti's famous contemporaries include:

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945): German politician and leader of the Nazi Party who led Germany during World War II.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): Irish poet and playwright who won the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature for his poetry, including The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair, and Other Poems (1929).

Albert Einstein (1879-1955): German-born scientist and writer who developed the theory of relativity and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

Joseph Stalin (1879-1953): Autocratic leader of the Soviet Union who held a stranglehold on power until his demise.

Helen Keller (1890-1968): U.S. writer, feminist, and socialist. The deaf and blind author inspired many with her books and life story.


Works in Literary Context

Transcending traditional boundaries of genre and discipline, Canetti’s literary and nonliterary texts are structurally and intellectually interconnected; they function as a complex and idiosyncratic network of ideas that call into question ‘‘big’’ systems such as Marxism, capitalism, and fascism.

Psychological Imbalance. The most fascinating aspect of Auto-da-fe is the meticulous development of the main characters’ psychological imbalance. Kien, Therese, Fischerle, Pfaff, and even Georg, suffer from their own brand of madness. The unveiling of each particular form of madness is carried out with great subtlety. In his only major work of fiction, a novel written at the age of twenty- five, Canetti exhibits an unusual mastery of storytelling.

Crowd Dynamics. The impetus for this ambitious study, Crowds and Power, can be traced back to July 15, 1927, when Canetti observed the dynamics governing the crowd setting fire to the Palace of Justice in Vienna. Other experiences with crowd behavior, notably the seemingly inexplicable power that political leaders such as Adolf Hitler had over the masses in Nazi Germany, compelled Canetti to examine the origins, makeup, and behavior of crowds in a vast array of social settings and cultures.



Canetti was profoundly intrigued by the power of group dynamics. Here are a number of other works that explore the workings of crowds.

''The Lottery'' (1948), a short story by Shirley Jackson. This horrifying short story explores what happens when a mother is chosen for the town's ritual stoning.

''The Ones Who Walk Away from Ornelas" (1974), a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin. In this short story, the unthinking happiness of the town depends on the misery of one poor child.

Do the Right Thing (1989), a film directed by Spike Lee. In this movie, racial tensions run high on a hot day in New York City, and a series of irritations cause a full-scale riot.


Works in Critical Context

Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981 for ‘‘writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.’’ Even prior to this turning point in his career, Canetti had attracted a small but loyal following among Austrian, British, German, and American intellectuals without, however, being a ‘‘popular’’ writer.

Auto-da-fe. Canetti’s first novel follows a world-renowned scholar of Chinese culture, Peter Kien, whose life revolves around his library of twenty-five thousand books. When published, the novel was well received by some critics and received praise from Hermann Broch, Alban Berg, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, and Hermann Hesse. After the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, all publication venues there were closed to oppositional and Jewish writers, and the Nuremberg racial laws took effect. Distributing Auto-da-fe on the German-speaking market was impossible, leaving Canetti’s book untouchable. When the novel was translated into English after World War II, many critics and reviewers initially labeled the work ‘‘too difficult.’’ Little effort was made to promote the translation, and it soon went out of print.

Later critics of Auto-da-fe, as well as Crowds and Power, praised their insight into individual and mass psychology. In discussions of Auto-da-fe, some critics have complained that Canetti’s characterization is superficial. Furthermore, they argue, the world of invariably deranged personalities depicted in Canetti’s novel bears little resemblance to actual life. With the exception of Kien, the characters do not evolve, while Kien himself sinks into insanity before finally destroying himself. A particular point of objection to the novel is that none of its characters comes to any realization of his or her folly, and the reader is ultimately offered only a biting satire of dementia. In addition, critics describe the structure of Auto-da-fee as difficult because the narrative perspective shifts without transition or explanation from the viewpoint of one character to another or to an omniscient narrator.

Nevertheless, many commentators praise the book for its treatment of the dual nature of human beings as both individuals and members of a group. Critics observe that Canetti’s portrayal of a world populated by cruel, obsessive personalities accurately reflects European society in the 1920s and 1930s, and his complex narrative technique provides a penetrating understanding of the characters’ psychopathy.

Crowds and Power. As with Auto-da-fe, many commentators consider Crowds and Power a flawed work, observing that its scholarship is unscientific and that the book advances assertions without the support of arguments or scientific proof. Moreover, critics maintain that without supporting arguments, readers have little reason to believe some of the premises on which Canetti grounds his explanation of crowds and crowd behavior.


Responses to Literature

1. In Auto-da-fe, Peter Kien obsesses over his library. In what ways is this obsession similar or different from the obsessions of the other characters? Research obsessive behaviors and determine what characteristics Kien exhibits and which ones he does not. What does it mean to have an obsession?

2. Give an overview of Canetti’s concept of group dynamics and mass psychology. Choose a recent incident of group dynamics (a mass demonstration, riot, sports team celebration) and examine the behaviors through Canetti’s perspective. Do Canetti’s observations still hold true today?

3. Canetti was exposed to and spoke a wide variety of languages during his childhood and chose to write in German. Explore the role of language and words in Canetti’s development as a writer.

4. In what ways did the events leading up to and including World War II affect Canetti and his work? What are some of the tactics that writers tend to use to reflect the history of their time? Does Canetti’s style or content give you some idea of what were the trouble spots in history during his time?




Darby, David, ed. Critical Essays on Elias Canetti. New York: G. K. Hall, 2000.

Elbaz, Robert, and Lea Hadomi. Elias Canetti; or, The Failing of the Novel. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Falk, Thomas H. Elias Canetti. Boston: Twayne, 1993.

Hanuschek, Sven. Elias Canetti: Biography. Munich: Carl Hanser, 2005.

Murphy, Harriet. Canetti and Nietzche: Theories of Humor in ‘‘Die Blendung’’. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Sontag, Susan. Under the Sign ofSaturn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980.

Web Sites

Elias Canetti. Retrieved March 15, 2008, from http://www.ub.fuberlin.de/internetquellen/fachinformation/germanistik/autoren/multi_cde/canetti.html.